Climate change to cut access to food nutrients

Holding freshly harvested cassava, Abuja
A proud woman farmer holding freshly harvested cassava. Copyright: IFPRI/Milo Mitchell, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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  • Researchers assessed the impact of climate change and rising CO2 emissions on global diets
  • By 2050, proteins, iron and zinc could be less available in crops globally by up to 20 per cent
  • Adding micronutrients to food — a process called food fortification — could a solution

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[NAIROBI] Dietary protein, iron and zinc could decline by 2050 in Africa and the rest of the world because of climate change and increasing carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, a study says.

A report by the United Nations Development Programme shows that Sub-Saharan Africa is home to some of the most nutritionally insecure people in the world and has the second highest burden of those who suffer from hunger with 239 million people as food insecure after South Asia.

Estimates from global agricultural market models tend to show increasing global food production in the next decades because of improved technology.

Researchers say in the study that many such analyses do not combine nutrient content and productivity of key agricultural commodities including wheat and rice under the influence of climate change and rising CO2 emissions, thus depicting an overly positive outlook of future global food security.

“The goal of this study was to expand on those analyses and obtain a more robust estimate of impacts of CO2 on nutrients and therefore produces a better estimate of potential future dietary composition,” says Nicola Cenacchi, co-author of the study and a senior research analyst at the International Food Policy Research Institute.

“The goal of this study was to expand on those analyses and obtain a more robust estimate of impacts of CO2 on nutrients.”

Nicola Cenacchi, International Food Policy Research Institute

According to the study published in The Lancet Planetary Health this month (17 July), researchers combined two datasets that take into account climate change and rising emission levels of CO2. scenarios for 2010 and 2050, and production of six key crops: wheat, rice, barley, potato, soybean and vegetables.

The researchers assessed the consumption patterns of the key crops across countries and regions and calculated changes in the concentration of protein, iron and zinc in the crops as a result of rising emissions of CO2 for 2010 and 2050.

“[It is] a modelling approach combining elevated atmospheric CO2 effects on protein, iron and zinc availability with projected climate change impacts on global diets,” explains Timothy Sulser, study co-author and a senior scientist at the International Food Policy Research Institute.

The findings show that the combined effect of climate change and rising CO2 emissions “will decrease growth in the global availability of nutrients by 19·5 per cent for protein, 14·4 per cent for iron and 14·6 per cent”.

“Disproportionate effects are projected to occur in countries that currently have deficiencies of protein, iron or zinc such as [those in] the Middle East and North Africa, Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia,” the study says.

“These findings suggest that climate change could slow progress on improvements in global nutrition by simply making key nutrients less available,” adds Sulser, in a statement released by the International Food Policy Research Institute this month (18 July).

Cenacchi tells SciDev.Net that micronutrient deficiencies lead to problems such as reduced resistance to infections and delayed or impaired physical development.

Cenacchi says that strategies to address such deficiencies include adding micronutrients including minerals and vitamins to food — a process called food fortification.

Promotion of nutrition education in schools and in professional programmes could help address the situation, he adds.

Ruth K. Oniang'o, founder and editor-in-chief, African Journal of Food, Agriculture, Nutrition and Development, says, “Climate variability is a global phenomenon that has not chosen where to affect … and thus everyone should be concerned.” 

She adds that Africa is the most affected continent when it comes to hunger, poverty and micronutrient deficiencies but it has large quantities of natural resources, “a lot already plundered and yet a lot also still untapped”.

Africa needs to understand that climate change is real and take steps in building scientific capacity in dealing with it. Oniang'o calls for the need to launch public education on climate change and its related impacts such as prolonged droughts so that citizens can take personal responsibility in developing resilient mechanisms.

Africa needs to go back to its traditional foods crops such as millet, cassava, amaranthus, spider plant, African nightshade, cowpea leaves and pumpkin leaves which are more nutritious and resilient to climate change, Oniang'o tells SciDev.Net

This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Sub-Saharan Africa English desk.